The agricultural village of Avonlea in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables has a very conservative social structure in which women are confined to stereotypical gender roles. However, throughout the narrative, the novel expresses a critical response to said gender roles. The feminist potential of Anne of Green Gables lies in the way in which its depiction of gender roles may be contrasted to that in other works of a similar theme or genre, ironic tensions that arise between the thoughts of certain characters and the actions to which they are limited, and the novel’s preoccupation with demonstrating the effect such limitation has on bothwomen and men. The effect of these relatively subtle factors is their ultimate culmination into a collective challenge to confining gender roles.
As the protagonist, Anne Shirley is a particularly significant figure in the novel’s deconstruction of limited roles for women. Her function as a challenge to the limitations of women is rather ambiguous when we take her domestic transformation throughout the novel into account, but there is still much reconciliation to be made thereof. For example, Shirley Foster and Judy Simons put Anne in the context of other female figures of youth (girl-oriented) literature who came before her:
Anne is outspoken and bouncy, and, without sharing the tomboyish characteristics of Jo March and Katy Carr, she frequently demonstrates her lack of gender-specific attributes, especially in the traditionally female context of domesticity. She puts liniment instead of vanilla into the cake she makes for the new minister’s wife; she serves Diana cherry- brandy in mistake for raspberry cordial, and makes her friend disgracefully drunk; she starches Matthew’s handkerchiefs; and she lets pies burn in the oven. (155)
Through her unintentional resistance to the domestic duties in which Marilla trains her, Anne’s difficult disposition appears to question the process of forcing someone into the role prescribed by her gender. Furthermore, Foster and Simons assert that Anne’s various mistakes do not carry the moral weight that they would in earlier works of the genre (155). Anne’s lack of domestic dexterity is not made an example of in the way that it would be in the novel’s earlier contemporaries, and therefore its function as the reinforcement of confining roles for women comes into question.
In addition to the issue of domesticity, Anne’s character also offers progressive commentary through the first stirrings of her love life, as well as her academic pursuits. Janet-Weiss Townsend contrasts Anne with figures in modern youth literature in order to illustrate how progressive her opinion of romantic relationships is:
Anne’s power comes from within. Hers is a strong personality. She doesn’t become immersed in finding her perfect boyfriend as the protagonists in some more recent “girls” stories do. The currently popular Silhouette Romances are an extreme example. Anne knows that, although men are important, they don’t define who she is. (111)
Again, Anne of Green Gables is set apart from the typical narrative of its genre through the modern portrayal of Anne. However, Frank Davey argues that Anne’s career as a teacher and implied future relationship with Gilbert Blythe (who is also qualified to be a teacher by the end of the novel) is a somewhat of a halt to progression because Anne would then only have come as far as her parents did (381-382). In response to this, I assert that Anne’s decision to pursue higher education and the enthusiasm with which she embraces following a new “bend in the road” (Montgomery 324-325) is a clear enough indication that Anne will far exceed her parents who, after all, did not make it far enough to raise her. Furthermore, whether or not Anne gives up career for family like her mother did (Montgomery 42), it is very clear from her musings in the final chapter that it will always be her choice, which is the cornerstone of modern feminist ideology.
It is also in the final chapter that Anne tells Marilla she is not going to accept the Avery Scholarship to Redmond so that she can stay and help her aging caregiver run Green Gables, and thereby avoid the necessity of selling it (323). This appears to be a display of the female role of nurturance and a rejection of the male pursuit for education, but Monika Hilder claims that the reasoning behind Anne’s “sacrifice” does not carry weight as an exclusive female characteristic because Gilbert makes a similar sacrifice in giving up his teaching position in Avonlea for the sake of Anne and Marilla (Hilder 215). Therefore, Anne’s actions in this context do not exemplify the role of her gender as much as the role of general human generosity.
The strongest challenge to the concept of confining roles for women, which comes through the character of Anne, is Matthew’s death. Marilla is very blunt in her utilitarian explanation to Anne of why she will not be staying at Green Gables: “We want a boy to help Matthew on the farm. A girl would be of no use to us” (28). It is clear that this situation exemplifies a strict notion of confining gender roles in the direct implication that it is out of the question for a girl to do farm work, but it also becomes apparent as a strong criticism thereof near the end of the novel. The day before Matthew dies of shock, Anne expresses her regret that she was not a boy, otherwise she could “spare [him] in a hundred ways” (311). The suggestion here is that adherence to mutually exclusive gender roles have an indirect hand in Matthew’s death. It is a reasonable assumption that he would have been more likely to survive the shock of the Abbey Bank’s failure (Montgomery 314) had Anne been allowed to relieve him of the strain of his excessive labour on the farm.
Another notable challenge to the novel’s contemporary gender division comes from the instances of irony which are presented by the character of Rachel Lynde. Davey claims that the way in which Montgomery addresses the issue of why women can not be church ministers is safely contained by Anne’s naïve musing regarding Mrs. Lynde’s potential as a preacher:
Here Anne’s simplicity becomes immediately apparent when she follows her question with the suggestion that the dogmatic Rachel Lynde could have been a minister–that Mrs. Lynde can pray as well as the school superintendent, Mr. Bell, and could likely learn to preach as well. (Davey 381)
However, I assert that Anne’s observation serves to highlight the irony of Mrs. Lynde’s strong opinion against the advent of female ministers (Montgomery 267). The irony comes from the discrepancy between her rejection of female ministry, and, beyond Anne’s own observation, the novel’s suggestion of her qualification as a minister. When Avonlea searches for a new minister upon the retirement of Mr. Bentley, it is Mrs. Lynde who comes through as the most informed critic of the applicants, and she is apparently Avonlea’s authority on doctrine as it is she who tests Mr. Allan (the successful applicant) in order to gage his level of qualification (Montgomery 179-180). Furthermore, Mrs. Lynde “does plenty of unofficial preaching as it is. Nobody has much of a chance to go wrong in Avonlea with Rachel to oversee them” (Montgomery 267). It is implied from her people skills that Mrs. Lynde would be a veritable asset to the society of Avonlea as a minister. While she is against the idea of ministry as an occupational field for women, Mrs. Lynde is illustrated as a highly qualified individual for the position, creating ironic tension that serves to challenge the occupational limitations of women.
Mrs. Lynde’s opinion of education is a further example of the critical irony discussed above. She does not hesitate to criticize Mr. Phillips for his inadequacy as a teacher and “[shakes] her head as if to say that if she were only at the head of the educational system of the province things would be much better managed” (Montgomery 125). Her implied understanding of educational politics and the suggestion that things would be better if she were running the show function as another case of ironic tension with her conflicting belief that a female teacher “is a dangerous innovation” (193). The novel seems to establish an ethos between Mrs. Lynde and the reader by which the reader recognizes the irony of how Mrs. Lynde stifles her own potential by strictly rejecting that which does not adhere to stereotypical gender roles, despite her obvious capabilities.
Mrs. Lynde is also a part of the broader matriarchal framework of Avonlea. Although she is labelled as a housewife in the beginning of the novel, the following list of her duties illustrate her as a veritable presence of leadership in the community: “she ‘ran’ the Sewing Circle, helped run the Sunday school, and was the strongest prop of the Church Aid Society and Foreign Missions Auxiliary” (2). Foster and Simons assert that this notion of women in a position of authority applies to various residents of Avonlea:
[W]omen are textually positioned as figures of strength, in contrast to the men, and their insertion into traditionally masculine arenas of empowerment is indicated by their involvement in the underworld beyond the domestic – Marilla’s participation in community affairs, Mrs. Lynde’s interest in politics and support for women’s suffrage, and Anne’s commitment to education, inspired by Miss Stacey and eventually leading to a career in teaching. (163).
That the women of Avonlea possess a masculine fortitude that is lacking in the male characters is readily apparent throughout the novel. When Matthew is faced with a girl at the train station, rather than the boy he was expecting, he is terribly uncertain as to what action he should take, “wishing that Marilla was at hand to cope with the situation” (12). It is readily evident from this that Marilla is the more equipped of the two for handling matters in the traditionally male public sphere. Furthermore, it is Marilla who has the ultimate say in whether or not they will keep Anne at Green Gables as we see her considering Matthew’s desire thereof (45). While Marilla is the obvious figure of direct matriarchal authority in the Cuthbert household, Matthew is not without his own form of influence. Hilder comments on Matthew’s apparently feminine demeanour:
Matthew’s unassuming “feminine” ways, practiced with remarkable tenacity, subvert and ultimately transform the bold confrontational “masculine” modes of behaviour. His whispers and silences carry tremendous weight in the novel, suggesting perhaps a different idea of patriarchal power. (219)
Hilder goes on to explain how Matthew’s “subversive gentleness” has more of an effect on Anne than does Marilla’s strict rearing (219). Although Marilla is literally active in the domestic duties of the household in the same way that Matthew is active in the male role of working on the farm, socially, their traditional positions as ascribed by gender are reversed.
Matthew’s character demands further attention as a vehicle for the subversion of confining gender roles. The level of his shyness is how he is first introduced in the novel: “he was the shyest man alive and hated to have to go among strangers or to any place where he might have to talk” (3). This stands in direct contrast to the traditional notion of the man as a confident patron of the public sphere, a place where Matthew is cripplingly uncomfortable. Hilder notes how the decision of Matthew’s equally shy father to build Green Gables well out of the way of other people “suggests a gender reversal. The homestead is now a ‘male’ retreat of domesticity, the security of hearth and home, away from the active ‘female’ bustle of matriarchal (or ‘patriarchal,’ as it may be alternatively read) society” (221). It is in this gender reversal that lies the novel’s subtle challenge to mutually exclusive gender roles. Matthew is not the only example of this:
Thomas Lynde–a meek little man whom Avonlea people called “Rachel Lynde’s Husband”–was sowing his late turnip seed on the hill field beyond the barn; and Matthew Cuthbert ought to have been sowing his on the big red brook field away over by Green Gables. (2)
In addition to a rather humorous example of male subservience, we also see an illustration of the norm of male activity in an agricultural town. The novel’s criticism of field labour as exclusively male work has already been explained with regards to Matthew’s death, but consideration is due to how men are portrayed as victims of their own confining gender roles. Foster and Simons explain how Matthew is exemplary of this:
Mocked by the community for his shyness and indecisiveness, he is in fact as much a victim of gender ideology, with its emphasis on male aggressiveness and self-assurance, as are women. Through him and other main characters of the novel, polarities of masculine and feminine are undermined, being replaced by a more liberal and flexible vision of personal interaction. (163-164)
Marilla makes it clear after she informs Matthew that she has decided to let Anne stay with them that he is not to interfere with her raising of Anne. This sentiment is echoed again much later when Marilla reminds Matthew: “I’m bringing her up, not you” (228). Despite his affection for Anne, and the role he played in persuading Marilla to allow her to stay with them, Matthew is essentially excluded from her upbringing. This is also an instance of irony similar to those of Mrs. Lynde. Despite his qualification and desire to nurture Anne, he is barred from it.
The challenge to confining gender roles in Anne of Green Gables is subtle, but strong in its consistency throughout the novel. Such consistent challenges are exemplified by the character of Anne, who stands in contrast to other comparable literary figures with her sense of independence and freedom of choice, as well as the matriarchal framework of Avonlea and its corresponding relationship with domestic (Matthew) and subservient (Thomas) men.
Davey, Frank. “Ambiguity and Anxiety in Anne of Green Gables.” Anne of Green Gables: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Criticism. Ed. Mary Henley Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. 381-385. Print.
Foster, Shirley and Judy Simons. What Katy Read: Feminist Re-Readings of ‘Classic’ Stories for Girls. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995. Print.
Hilder, Monika. “The Ethos of Nurture: Revisiting Domesticity in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.” 100 Years of Anne with an ‘E’: The Centennial Study of Anne of Green Gables. Ed. Holly Blackford. Calgary: U of Calgary P, 2009. 211-227. Print.
Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1942. Print.
Townsend, Janet-Weiss. “Sexism Down on the Farm?” Such a Simple Little Tale: Critical Responses to L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Ed. Mavis Reimer. Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, 1992. 109-117. Print